News, views and what I choose to dos

A damaged process and a damaged community

Category : Domain names, ICANN, Internet, Internet governance · by Jan 25th, 2011

I haven’t written for a while. There’s usually two reasons for that: either I have been horribly over-worked, or I need a break from the strange, incestuous and often bitter world of Internet policy and governance. In this case, unusually, it is both.

Here’s the big news from the world of Internet governance: some vague details of a meeting between the ICANN Board and governments, in the form of the Governmental Advisory Committee (GAC), have emerged. But adding concern to the general vagueness is the inclusion of precise wording that means something specific, although no one is quite sure what. It is this:

This meeting is not intended to address the requirements/steps outlined in the Bylaws mandated Board-GAC consultation process.

This wording is indecipherable to any but the greatest of insiders. And that fact, combined with the reality that this Board-GAC meeting is one of the most significant Internet governance meetings in the past five years, makes it all the more frustrating. Despite the global impact, and the open processes, and the much-vaunted bottom-up multi-stakeholder model, here is a very, very small group of people making crucial decisions about the future of the Internet and they are using arcane and indecipherable terminology in order to keep everyone else out.

[But if you *really* want to know what it means, read this post.]

This unprecedented GAC-Board meeting (and it is increasingly more GAC-Board than Board-GAC) was the result of a fudge devised in short order in an effort to overcome a short-term problem at the recent ICANN meeting in Cartagena. It is the latest in a long line of short-term fudges stretching back years, none of which ICANN has any reason to be proud of and which, I would argue, have created a very dangerous culture of bypass over resolution.

The fudge was intended to avoid a confrontation between the ICANN Board and governments over two key issues: the approval of rules to open up the top-level of the Internet’s naming systems; and approval of the controversial dot-xxx application, which openly seeks to provide space online exclusively for adult content.


A new meeting just between the Board and GAC scheduled just two months later would discuss these issues with an eye to resolving them before the next ICANN meeting in San Francisco in March, one month after that. But why bother to cram an entirely new and unprecedented process into a tiny two-month window? Because everyone is acutely aware of the frustration that exists around the seemingly endless delays over both the gTLD programme and the dot-xxx application.

However, in trying to move forward quickly, and for the 100th time in ICANN’s tiny 10-year lifespan, both groups’ actions are now likely to delay things even longer and create even more tension and frustration. If an older, wiser institution were to tell ICANN anything, it would be this gem:

More haste, less speed.

Alternatively, it might be a little blunter and say “stop trying to be so bloody clever and get on with it”. The Board and staff think they are being clever, and the GAC thinks it’s being clever. The cleverness is so intoxicating that it’s all too easy to forget that the process has actually become quite idiotic.

The dot-xxx farce (yes, it has gone beyond “saga” and is now firmly in the “farce” camp) is a case in point. Neither the Board nor GAC really know what they are doing from one day to the next. There had to be a public comment period on the substance of course. And a comment period on the process steps that might be taken (which no one agreed with). And then discussions of the upshots of those comment periods. And then a discussion about what the Board was likely to do in response to those comment periods. And then a check whether that likely decision would break the GAC’s advice. And then a discussion about what to do if it did. And then the Board saying ‘we think we disagree with you, do you agree?’ And then a discussion saying ‘so you agree we disagree with you. How do we find a way to agree to disagree’. And on and on and on. It would be funny if it wasn’t so appalling.

Of course if you are in the middle of it, this all seems a little frustrating, certainly, but logical and in the interests of the greater good. The larger reality however is quite different – a process has been created that when one looks back at it is so convoluted and erratic that it can never been used again. Rather than surveying the land and building a train line through the best topography, ICANN has instead hacked its way through the forest to the top of the hill and hacked its way back down again and now doesn’t have the foggiest idea where it started from. Or where it came from.


ICANN can no longer adopt this haphazard, by-the-seat-of-its-pants approach. It is time it grew up. And that means *not* creating new processes out of thin air just because you don’t like where the currrent process is leading you. There is a reason why every significant decision-making body on the planet has procedures and rules that it sticks to even if they seem ridiculous at the time. It’s because they create something lasting, and something that doesn’t leave everyone, including its main actors, unsure about what it going to happen next and when resolution will be reached.

The new gTLD process has been so badly delayed by procedural gymnastics that the processes of other organisations are starting to look enticing by comparison. When you have no idea what is happening, and no control, and the process doesn’t even have the advantage of being fast, what exactly is the point of playing along?

These failed efforts at reaching decisions create a very much bigger problem though. Not only do they undermine confidence in the whole process but they create a culture where obfuscation, distrust, procedural games and misrepresentation of others becomes a norm that is then, perversely, defended.

We have a very damaged process of decision-making at the heart of the Internet governance, and a damaged community surrounding it that doesn’t quite know how things work and feel as though they have been sold a giant lie.

The feeling is that no matter what you do, or how much effort you put in, if either the Board or the GAC don’t like it, you are going precisely nowhere. And the procedural justifications that amount to little more than saying ‘not until I’m happy’ have been stacked so high that they are on the verge of toppling over.

Next steps

This is the reality: unless there is a change of heart or approach, ICANN will screw up yet another deadline and San Francisco will come and go and we will have more pointless comment periods and more tedious pow-wows.

When it is finally done all those involved will be so overcome with relief that they will delude themselves that they actually did a brilliant job given the toughness of the task. And so the hope that any lessons might be learnt will fade into a fog of ill-deserved mutual backslapping.

But the damage is there under the protective clothing of resolutions and communiques. I have spent the past six months creating a conference about new gTLDs that seeks to break free from this divisive and negative atmosphere and create a space for positive dialogue – the creation and sharing of knowledge and viewpoints.

I have been amazed and dismayed as frustration with ICANN occasionally gets thrown in .nxt’s direction. When the Board failed to approve the new gTLD program in Cartagena, a number of people started insisting – rather oddly if you think about it – that the .nxt conference also be put back. Not a chance, I said – the conference is designed to function entirely independently of ICANN’s (lack of) decisions. It is all about the business of new top-level domains, the changes coming, the new models, the new markets, the business environment that exists for new Internet extensions.

The reality is that 95 percent of the real gTLD market is going to remain entirely unaffected whether or not trademark lawyers get their rule changes, or governments don’t have to pay to object to applications. But the process has become so emotive that some have lost sight of the bigger picture. Every strike-out is a disaster; every home run is a victory for the noisy policy sports fans.

The same calls for .nxt to be postponed appeared again in the past few days when the news finally emerged that the GAC-Board meeting was likely to be a colossal waste of everyone’s time and possibly delay the new gTLD process even further. Someone even suggested that it be cancelled altogether – as if the whole future expansion of the Internet depended on a badly worded press release from ICANN (.nxt, incidentally, is still very much on and I have high hopes that it will remind everyone about the exciting opportunities that this name expansion creates).

This emotional response to ICANN’s work has been unusually high as long as I’ve known it but there comes a time when the community needs to ease off trying to force people to make decisions, take a couple of deep breaths and realise that there is always plenty else to do in the meantime.

If there had been more discussions in the past five years about where we were going, rather than fights over where we actually were, we may never have needed to have gone past version three of the Applicant Guidebook.

I’ve actually forgotten what the next one will be – version six?


(15) comments

[…] This post was mentioned on Twitter by UrbanBrain, Kieren McCarthy. Kieren McCarthy said: A damaged process and a damaged community – […]

11 years ago ·

Well said.

Perhaps alternate DNS mechisms will be available, or the next ice age will be upon us, before this lot reaches a decision.

Having volunteered several years of my life to the zoo called ICANN and the introduction of new gTLDs I wonder if there is anything that can be done or said to bring the farce to a close.

Maybe .nxt will light the way. Back to the future indeed.

[…] with the process was neatly summed up in a blog post by Kieren McCarthy today. McCarthy, who previously worked at ICANN, is organizing a new TLD […]

11 years ago ·

The problem is Kieren, the whole GNSO new gTLD process is still fundamentally flawed and because of these flaws there is still inherent opposition to it from almost all sections of society outside of ICANN and its [would be] contracted parties.

These flaws were highlighted in comments to the first draft applicant guide book, but these flaws have not be fixed, and it seems some within ICANN may have inadvertently or otherwise used process to try and gloss over these flaws since.

Glossing over these flaws will only land ICANN in further trouble down the line and therefore the board should be sending the whole process back to the GNSO rather than trying to out point the GAC.

Mikey O'Connor
11 years ago ·

A gread read, as always. Thanks for this one Kieren.

Here’s another lens to view this situation through. What if you have a different goal? What if your goal is:

Maintain status quo.

How would you evaluate the current state of affairs under that assumption? My guess would be “not too bad!” :-)

Like Avri, I’ve devoted a few years of volunteer time to ICANN in order to answer two crass self-serving questions. The questions are:

“Is there a business in a new TLD?”

“What happens to the value of my premium generic domains in a ‘lots of new TLDs’ environment?”

I’ve pretty much arrived at my answers. The answers are “I don’t think so” and “nothing much, at least in my lifetime.” The paralysis you describe is a big contributor to those conclusions.

11 years ago ·

Thanks for writing this post Kieren.

It can be hard to keep the faith, but all this intensity is probably a sign that the process has nearly run its course. When it does, well prepared applicants will be ready.

As you say, there is plenty to do in the meantime. Just completing an application is going to be a tremendous amount of work, not to mention the huge workload necessary to educate and engage a community, if that’s your goal.

Only the most well prepared, focussed, and equipped applicants will make it, and perhaps that’s for the best.

Running a TLD and representing a community takes experience and dedication. By the time we launch, I can definitely say our team will have that in spades.

Jothan Frakes
11 years ago ·

I recall, when this whole process started in 1998 with ICANN, that there were governments and businesses waving their hands and elevating alarms about computer systems grinding to a halt because of the y2k ‘millennium bug’.

The Earth kept spinning, the internet is still here. We’re all alive.

I appreciate that you’re saying that people are pole vaulting over rat turds and tossing FEAR and DOUBT around like rice at a wedding.

Perhaps if the governments who work to slow job creation on new TLDs would instead migrate that scrutiny and application of it towards the banking and lending industries where it would be of more benefit the world economy might be in a better place.

In 1985 Paul Mockapetris fought to add .COM to the root. People wanted proof it was needed.

How could one have predicted or projected the worldwide adoption, use, and growth that was enabled?

If someone were to have said that there would be 90 Million .com domains registered in 25 years and things like Google, Amazon, or Facebook – someone would have looked up from their amber and black text monitor and laughed them away.

There are companies and consumers ready to participate and grow new business with new TLDs. New Jobs. New Investment.

Those who dislike this are big businesses that can afford to lobby governments to say things like “we’re not convinced that the benefits outweigh the costs”.

Now governments are blocking job growth and opportunity to suit those special interests.

FEAR can be a powerful motivator. Don’t fall for it.

11 years ago ·

I completely disagree with your summary of the .xxx farce. ICANN is not direction-less on this issue; ICANN did not get lost in its own process. Instead, because the board can overcome neither the inherent flaws in the ICM application nor GAC’s advice concerning those flaws, ICANN has spent years creating and manipulating processes that keep this application alive, hoping to find some sort of justification for accepting an application that is full of deception and fraud. ICANN and ICM have conspired to make a fortune at the expense of the adult industry by creating a product to which they are adamantly opposed, yet one which they will be forced to use in order to protect their intellectual property.

This one will definitely end up in a courtroom, and I really look forward to seeing what the adult industry is able to uncover.

[…] Tuesday I wrote a piece about the damaged decision-making process at ICANN at the moment. Right at the top I wrote: Adding […]

11 years ago ·

@SK: Well, I think you need to separate out your feelings about the dot-xxx application and the actual process that it – and any other application, in theory – goes through.

Even if we take your position – that the application is somehow fraudulent – the fact remains that ICANN has been unable to settle that issue, and has created several formal processes, public comments, and public and private discussions in an effort to reach an end-point.

At no point in that process did anyone know what the next step was, or when the end would be reached. We still don’t know now. This is ad hoc process creation and the problem is not that occasionally some creative thinking is done to move forward but that the whole process has become “creative”. Which in the context of actually making a decision is the worst of all worlds.

I don’t think ICM has manipulated the process at all, to be honest. If anything, it has stuck to the stated processes as far as it possibly can. The problem is – as this post points out – is the stated processes are being routed around every time a difficult decision needs to be taken.

11 years ago ·

I find the “Absence of Transparency and Accountability” section of a letter penned by the Internet Commerce Association to be particularly informative. It describes a seven month period of unauthorized and “undisclosed negotiations:”

Since 2007, there have been numerous examples of irregularities in the relationship between ICANN and ICM. ICANN is so thoroughly unconcerned about the appearance of impropriety that they actually allowed ICM to sponsor (pay $10,000) a meeting at which ICANN was voting on whether or not to proceed with ICM’s application.

[…] days after .Nxt Conference organizer Kieren McCarthy lamented that some supporters were asking him to postpone his new gTLD conference, it looks like the timing […]

[…] days after .Nxt Conference organizer Kieren McCarthy lamented that some supporters were asking him to postpone his new gTLD conference, it looks like the timing […]

[…] with the process was neatly summed up in a blog post by Kieren McCarthy today. McCarthy, who previously worked at ICANN, is organizing a new TLD […]

[…] days after .Nxt Conference organizer Kieren McCarthy lamented that some supporters were asking him to postpone his new gTLD conference, it looks like the timing […]

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